I’m sure many therapists can relate to those internal “me too!” moments where a client speaks about a thought, an attitude or an experience that the therapist can relate to on a profound level. Perhaps things emerge which we might think are improbable, bizarre or inexplicable, which leave us gesticulating in supervision as we emphasise just how incomprehensible the parallels seem.
So how do we explain such experiences?
Carl Jung introduced us to the term Synchronicity – meaningful coincidences which, far from being random, are connected by their meaning and without obvious causality. I find this explanation for some of the parallels which have emerged in my own therapy very intriguing. It feels good to imagine a mystical and intangible influence in my choice of therapist, whom I now know to be rather similar to me in unexpected and charming ways. The party-poopingly rational part of me, however, won’t allow me to fully indulge in the pleasure of imagining this explanation to be so (though I do not intend to dismiss the potential existence and influence of synchronicity out of hand).
As I have developed a deeper understanding of unconscious processes through my own therapy, my studies, and my work with clients, I have become increasingly interested in the role of our unconscious in our lives and the way in which we form relationships. It is my feeling that unconscious knowing plays a significant role in the way therapeutic relationships are selected and formed, and that our unconscious creates opportunities for parallels to emerge in our awareness.
My therapist once said to me that sometimes it seems as though our unconsciouses are having an entire conversation that we know nothing about. I feel that this is a likely explanation for many of the feelings that sometimes occur in therapy which appear inconsistent with what I am aware of happening in the room.
My supervisor, quite delightfully, prefers to refer to the unconscious as the “greater mind”, finding the term unconscious does not do justice to its role, its significance and its value to us as organisms. While a large function of my therapy continues to be a process of allowing unconscious material to become conscious, I am also learning that my unconscious knows what it’s doing – that I can trust it, and my ability and willingness to listen to my intuition is growing all the time.
So to what extent do these unconscious conversations influence the way in which we form relationships? I am certain that my unconscious knew that my therapist is as introverted as I am, long before I was consciously aware of it. I am equally certain my unconscious picks up on certain cues from him, seeking out our similar processes, and that I say things that resonate because my unconscious wants to nurture the connection between us. In my view, this relational process is likely to echo the way in which an infant seeks attunement with their caregiver.
Equally, I have sat in the therapist’s chair and thought that emerging parallels, and the way they are emphasised in my client’s narrative, are likely to be more than mere coincidence.
Coincidences, of course do happen. One day I showed my therapist a photo on my phone. His response was muted and I noticed. I asked him what was wrong. I watched as he considered whether a disclosure was appropriate, and clearly he came to the conclusion that I had noticed something was up, and he had better tell me rather than risk falsely invalidating my experience of him. “Have you got a new phone cover?” he asked. Indeed, I had a new phone cover, and apparently it was identical to one he had just bought for himself (which I had never seen). As far as I am concerned, it was clearly a coincidence (though it’s still fun to imagine that it has a quality of synchronicity). We enjoyed the curiosity of the situation, and I think my therapist was relieved when I told him he had definitely not seen my phone case before; the notion that his choice had been unconsciously influenced by my phone case would give rise to some interesting reflection in his supervision, no doubt!
On that occasion, my therapist chose to disclose the parallel between us. In my view there had been a clear therapeutic purpose to doing so, as I have described. This leads me to wonder, how do we go about ascertaining therapeutic purpose when making decisions about whether to disclose similarities between ourselves and our clients?
I imagine there are a number of reasons why it might be helpful to disclose when similarities emerge – validating client experience (as in the case described above), building relational depth, normalising feelings, perhaps even helping to model a way of being. And I suppose there are reasons to be cautious too – there could be a risk of invalidating a client’s experience, taking up too much space in the relationship, assuming to understand the client’s experience, and missing the client’s frame of reference by imposing our own meanings and value to parallels in the work. I think, as with all self-disclosure, it’s a case of being mindful of the client’s process, and having a clear therapeutic purpose.
I like Val Wosket’s ideas, described in her book The Therapeutic Use of Self, where she highlights relational self-disclosure (disclosure about the therapist’s experience of the relationship, and things that are directly pertinent to the relationship) as often having more value to the therapeutic relationship than a biographical self-disclosure. With self-disclosure, I would say: the experiential learning in the here-and-now is usually more valuable than the anecdotal learning from the there-and-then. I feel this is likely to be equally true when parallels emerge in therapy.
Wosket, V. (2016) The Therapeutic Use of Self: Counselling practice, research and supervision. 2nd ed. Oxon: Routledge.